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May 13, 2011

Prospectus Q&A

Kevin Youkilis

by David Laurila

Famously dubbed “The Greek God of Walks” in Moneyball, Kevin Youkilis is now eight years into a big-league career that has been every bit as successful as Michael Lewis’ 2003 classic. Youkilis has helped lead the Red Sox to a pair of World Series titles, earning an equal number of All-Star berths while hitting .292/.394/.496. Popular with the Boston fan base and sabermetric set alike, “Youk” is a bearded on-base machine with home-run power and an approach that deftly blends dirt dog and stat nerd.

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David Laurila: Baseball Prospectus first interviewed you in 2003. How different of a player are you today than you were then?

Kevin Youkilis: I wouldn’t say that I’m much different; I think I’ve just matured. Basically, I understand the game better; I understand pitchers more. Each year I’m trying to grasp more and more about the game. I’ve always had the same kind of approach; I’ve just matured with certain parts of the game, hitting-wise. As you get older you learn how to hit certain pitches differently, lay off pitches, and read pitches. You learn yourself more than anything—why you do certain things, whether it’s swinging at bad pitches, or your mechanics, or how you get out of trouble when you get into trouble. More than anything, I’ve just matured as a hitter.

DL: Has that been primarily through experience?

KY: I think that’s the only way you can really get better, through reps. You can sit back and watch, but if you’re not getting at-bats, you’re not learning. Going out there and actually doing it is the only way. You can take BP every day, but unless you’re facing live pitching in the heat of the moment, you can’t really get better as a hitter.

DL: In the 2003 interview you said, “Getting recognized, the key is your first year of pro ball… I got lucky that I walked 70 times and had a high on-base percentage.” Can you elaborate on that?

KY: I think that walks are the byproduct of not giving in and not worrying about it. As the cliché goes, a walk is as good as a hit. Walking is a part of the game, and you can either accept it or you can fight against it by just trying to swing more. To me, if you swing at more bad pitches you’re going to have a lower average.

DL: What about the “getting recognized” part—do you feel you had to show something in your first year in order to get a real opportunity?

KY: I probably had to do it more than others. I was an eighth-round pick and got $12,000 to sign. I wasn’t a guy that got six figures, and I also wasn’t a young guy because I was senior out of college. As a college senior, you have to make more of an impact early, compared to the guys who are drafted in the first couple of rounds, the big-money guys. That’s not to say you can’t make it in my situation. Tons of guys have, but comparably you have to make an impact more quickly.

DL: How did the book Moneyball impact your career?

KY: I don’t know if I’d use the word “impact.” I think my career is a byproduct of myself and the Red Sox, along with my family and friends. When a book is written that includes you, I don’t think it impacts you unless you get a big head about it. Billy Beane just had his thoughts on me as a player, and there are other guys in that book that did or didn’t go on to the major leagues and have success.

As a person, you make your own path. I don’t think Michael Lewis’ book had any influence on me, but rather it had an influence on people around baseball who read the book. It simply brought my name out there to people around the country.

DL: From 2006-2008, your OBP and home-run totals went up while your walk rate declined, and so far this season your walk and strikeout rates are the highest of your career. Are there correlations between any of those numbers?

KY: I don’t really know. I know that at Baseball Prospectus you do a lot with stats, but there’s more that goes into it. There is a human element that goes into the equation as well as numbers. There are injuries, stuff off the field as well as on the field. It’s just the game of baseball, and there’s no telling what is going to happen each year. Usually the stats are close, but some years are way different. No one is really ever perfectly consistent.

There are always going to be years where guys are a little down in certain categories or up in certain categories. I had a lot of triples last year, but either balls were hitting funky off the wall or scooting around, so I don’t think there are any direct correlations to a lot of that. I know that strikeouts are up as a whole right now, and that’s for everyone around baseball. I think it’s just a byproduct of a lot of different things.

DL: How much of pitch recognition is innate, and how much of it is learned?

KY: One thing is your vision; you can’t teach somebody to see better. You can teach somebody what to look for in certain counts, or you can teach them to look for certain locations. But you see one thing a certain way—your vision is one way—and somebody else’s vision can be a whole different way. They might wear contacts, or simply just have different vision. You can learn what to look for in certain situations—which pitches, or which area in certain counts—but some people just can’t recognize certain pitches while others can’t. Some guys maybe see the ball a little better.

That’s a tough question, because I think we’d all like to recognize pitches a lot better. When you’re going good, you’re usually seeing the ball better than when you’re going bad. When you’re not seeing the ball, you tend to be thinking of other things. Basically, you just have to see the ball. A lot of times you start with the basics. That’s one thing coaches will always tell a hitter: Go back to the basics.

DL: Ted Williams famously claimed to have been able to see the seams of the baseball when it was delivered. What do you see when the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand?

KY: You can see the seams rotating in a certain direction, like on sliders. You can definitely see a little bit of that, that whole dot, but I think it’s more the height of the ball where it’s coming out of the hand—where it’s released. If it’s going to be a curveball, the ball goes up a little higher. Certain pitches break off. But to actually see the seams is pretty tough. I think it’s the rotation more than anything. Sometimes the ball rotates a different way, and I can definitely see the rotation.

DL: Mark McGwire told me that it’s impossible to cover all 17 inches of the plate at the big-league level, and that you have to focus on one side of the plate or the other. Do you agree?

KY: I think you have to focus on one side, but some guys probably can [cover the whole plate]. I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that, that it would be impossible. A lot of guys look away and react in. For me, personally, if I’m looking in and the ball is thrown away, I can’t hit that. I mean, I can, but it’s not going to be hit hard. So yeah, to be effective you have to really choose until you get to two strikes, then you basically have to battle. Until you get to two strikes, you just pick a spot—a location, or an area where you’re going to hit—and go from there.

DL: How much of what you’re looking for at the plate comes from charts and video?

KY: Some of it is. Some of the stuff is what you see on video, and some of it is what you see during the game—tendencies during the game, what he’s been throwing. Everyone changes, so you never know. Some guys are different. That day they might be throwing differently than they did the game before, so you can’t really go wholly off of video. Basically, you have to realize what is going on that day, because that day he might not have his curveball and is throwing a slider or a changeup. He might not be throwing that pitch at all. You can’t always go off the past.

DL: Have you recognized patterns as to how you’ve been pitched to over your career?

KY: Some teams will pitch differently. They have a set way they want to pitch you, and their pitchers will try to conform to that. But every pitcher is different, and they have to pitch to their strengths against your weaknesses, whatever they may be. If their strength is into your weakness, that’s going to be tough. If their strength is into your strength, that can be a problem, too. But I think it varies. The next time you face a guy, he might pitch you differently and you have to be prepared for that. Some teams pitch a certain way—they’ll go at you, or maybe around you—but one thing about baseball is that it changes, be it day-to-day or week-to-week.

DL: Who is more similar to you as a hitter, Dustin Pedroia or Manny Ramirez?

KY: I’d say neither. I wouldn’t say I’m like Pedey at all, the way I hit, and I’m not like Manny, either. No one is ever going to compare to Manny. Petey has a whole different approach than I do, usually, and so did Manny. Manny would look for a pitch, and if he got that pitch, he’d hit it. I look fastball and react. I think Pedey does too, so maybe we’re similar in that sense—we look fastball and react to off-speed. Maybe I’m a combination of the two, but it’s a hard question to answer. I’m my own guy.

DL: This is your eighth year in the big leagues. Is hitting easier for you than it used to be?

KY: No. If I ever put hitting and easy in the same sentence… maybe on the day that I retire, and I don’t have to hit anymore, I’ll say that it’s easy. It’s hard, and it gets harder as the years go on. You have to keep working. There’s no let down; you have to keep learning and learning, and there’s also your body. As you get older, you have to learn that, too. So, I’d say that it gets harder. You get more comfortable playing in certain settings, but hitting is never easy.

DL: Any final thoughts?

KY: Hitting isn’t easy. That pretty much sums it up. Hitting isn’t easy.

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 Author’s note: This is, reluctantly, my final column at Baseball Prospectus. Four-plus years ago I had the honor of inheriting the Prospectus Q&A series from the talented Jonah Keri, but as all things must pass, a decision has been made to discontinue the series. With that, I would like to say thank you to BP for giving me the opportunity to work with some of the best writers and analysts in the business. More importantly, I would like to thank you for reading.

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